If you’re like most of us, you need to get better video from your iPhone camera. We’ve all become so accustomed to being able to pull a phone out of our pocket and shoot a video of whatever we want. This is incredibly convenient to capture that crazy moment where mom decides it’s a good idea to try to rollerblade, but if you plan to capture professional-grade footage from your phone, you’ll need to know some basic skills that will turn that clip of mom from “your mom’s awesome” to “your mom’s viral”.
Clean the lens
Perhaps the most basic and easiest way to get a clearer shot from your phone is to thoroughly clean the lens before you hit record. Throughout the day your phone camera lens can get touched and pick up oils and fingerprints that attract lint and dust. Sometimes these aren’t noticeable, but will usually impact the quality of your shot. The best way to clean your camera lens is to use a moist wipe specifically designed for lens cleaning like these pre-moistened lens cleaning wipes, but in a pinch, a quick puff of breath and a wipe on a microfiber lens cleaning cloth will get the job done, but be careful using your shirt or other fabric as they can leave small scratches on the glass. Also note that if you are using a case for your phone that protects the lens, you may have to remove the case to get at the dust or oils on the actual phone lens or on the inside surface of the case. I’ve been using the i-Blason waterproof and dustproof case and it’s been great for everything but audio, which I will discuss in another post. Once you get your lens clean, be sure not to touch it again before you film.
Ensure iPhone camera settings are right
I know it’s tempting to just point your phone and hit record, but it’s worth thinking about the camera settings before you jump in to ensure you have the right tool for the job at hand. Since the upgrade to iOS 11, iPhones have come equipped with new settings to get better video footage. Learn how to use these settings properly for best results. I’ll be walking through the settings on the iPhone 7, but many iPhones and other smart phones have similar options. The first one on the list is the grid feature. I like to turn this on and leave it on all the time. You may have heard of the rule of thirds. Turning on the grid feature adds four lines to your screen that create nine boxes that can make it much easier to apply the rule of thirds as well as keep the horizon of your videos level. It also gives you reference points to use as you film to ensure you are tracking your shot appropriately and not introducing too much unwanted shake or motion.
What resolution and frame rate settings you should use depends primarily on motion in the shot, memory available, and end-use of the footage. We’ll go through each of these factors one at a time. We’ll talk about motion first.
- Motion: Video is essentially a series of photos (frames) strung together in sequence. The human eye can effectively detect about 24 frames per second on a screen. This is the frame rate most major motion pictures are produced in. So why do we have 30, 60, and for slo-mo, 120 and 240 frames per second settings and when should you use them? The major deciding factor is the movement you expect to take place in the shot. If you’re filming a soccer game or dance concert or your buddy throwing massive air on a halfpipe, there will likely be a lot of motion in the scene. This means the change in the scene from one frame to the next will be greater and the result will be more stutter in the video. If you increase the frames per second to 60, you can smooth out this stutter significantly. So even though your phone can shoot in 4K, it’s usually not the best option for action shots. Go with 1080p HD at 60 fps. That’s what my phone is set to by default since most my shots with the phone are quick off-the-cuff action shots. If you’re planning to use any slo-mo in your edits, the name of the game changes since slowing down the frame rates means the human eye can detect more change from frame to frame. If your project demands HD quality slo-mo footage, you can use 1080p HD at 120 fps, otherwise the 720p HD at 240 fps is recommended. The smoother frames with 240 fps looks better than the 120 and the reduced resolution isn’t typically noticed at the slow framerate. So when do you use that awesome 4K? Typically, from an iPhone camera, the best application of 4K video is only when the shot is relatively still and has ample lighting. This may be if you’re filming yourself explaining a new product or shooting sweeping panoramic shots of landscapes (as long as they’re well lit). Just beware if you plan to film yourself in 4K that it can show a lot of detail so spend some extra time on your pre-shot makeup.;)
- Memory: The next consideration when choosing settings is your available memory. You can see on the screenshot below that a minute of 4K video will take up about 350 MB but that same minute of 1080p at 60 fps will take up half the space. So depending on the length of the video you plan to record, you should check your phone’s storage first to be sure you have space, and look into a cloud storage solution to upload your clips to after you take them so you have space for the next shot.
- Intended use:The final consideration when choosing settings is how you plan to use the footage. If you only plan to show the clip to your friends from your phone, there isn’t much point in capturing 4K since there is no perceptible difference on the iPhone display between 4K and 1080p resolution. If you plan to publish to YouTube using the maximum quality, then 4K will help. Another setting you should consider is the Formats setting. You can choose between High Efficiency or Most Compatible. The difference is explained in the settings screen as this “To reduce file size, capture photos and videos in the high efficiency HEIF/HEVC format. Most Compatible will always use JPEG/H.264.” What this means is that for most purposes you can use the high efficiency setting which will reduce file size. If you know you need a specific file type for the end user, you should be able to use the Most Compatible setting and get to the end format that you need relatively easily since JPEG/H.264 are widely used formats.
A couple more notes on settings
- Once you get the backend settings right, you can go frame up your shot. But before you hit record, you need to lock the focus and exposure by tapping on the frame where you want to set the exposure and holding down until you see the AE/AF Lock note () appear. By default, the iPhone camera auto-adjusts to compensate for exposure and to maintain focus. This feature is great for setting up a shot, but once you start recording, if the exposure settings are adjusting throughout the scene, it will make the result appear inconsistently lit.
- Another point to include here in the settings section is the zoom feature. Unless your phone has a dual lens, the zoom feature uses a digital zoom. A digital zoom doesn’t work well because it only makes the pixels bigger leaving you with pixelated video. Newer cameras with dual lens cameras are capable of optical zoom, which is much more effective at capturing zoom, but still not as good as a professional grade camera.
Get the lighting right
If you’re struggling to get the exposure settings right, it’s probably because you don’t have good lighting. Fortunately, that’s something that can usually be fixed for not too much money. In general, more lighting is better. You can add additional lights by adding lamps, spotlights, or clip lights to the room you’re shooting in, or you can get professional studio lights like these for not too much.
Use daylight colors in LED or CFL for best results. The more bulbs the better, to a point, but direct light can sometimes cause shadows or bright spots. That’s why professional video sets use reflectors and diffusers. You can buy professional reflectors like these, but you can also make some simple homemade ones with pretty much any flat surface. White boards make good reflectors so a plain board with a sheet of butcher paper or a bedsheet will do the trick. If you need a bit more intense reflection, you can use aluminum foil or a Mylar sheet. These can help get your light all around and behind your subject so there aren’t any dark shadows. Another trick is to use light diffusers. Again, you can buy professional diffuser fabric, oryou can make your own. An easy way to do this is to cover any light sources with a semi-transparent filter. Bed sheets or parchment paper work well for this, just be sure not to put anything close to a light source that could get hot and start a fire. This isn’t as much of a risk with LED bulbs if you stay away from the heat diffusing parts.
If you’re filming outside, lighting isn’t usually as much of a challenge, but it can be. The same rules that apply indoors will apply outdoors. At night, bring your lights. During the day, face into direct light sources or ideally film when there is a light cloud cover to diffuse and soften the direct sunlight. For purposes of post-production, it’s typically better to underexpose a shot than to wash it out with too much light, so set your exposure lock on the darker side.
Get rid of shaky footage
The telltale mark of an amateur videographer is shaky home-movie style footage. Unless that’s the style of the project you’re working on, you’ll need to take extra steps to ensure your phone videos don’t leave viewers seasick and tuning out early. There are various methods to reduce shakiness and the options tend to vary significantly in cost and effectiveness. I’ll go through the list
Change how you hold the phone: This one is easy and free. Think about how you normally hold your phone when filming video. Do you hold your phone in one hand extended as far out as you can reach to get the best selfie shot? This will always lead to shaky footage. A better approach is to carefully select a filming position that allows you to hold your phone with both hands and to rest the phone on some stable object like the top of a wall, bench, rock or on top of a parked car. You can also lean into a wall or tree and hold the phone steady against the solid surface. If that’s not an option, the next best thing is to anchor your arms to your body using your elbows by tucking them into your sides. This will reduce the movement in your arms. If you’ve got the grid feature turned on as we discussed earlier, you can use the hashmarks to keep the shot steady throughout filming.
The next option is a tripod. Some of my favorites are here, here, and here, but any tripod will do. You can even make your own. The essential elements of a tripod are that its portable, lightweight, and securely holds your phone. Using tripods is pretty straightforward. Just be sure you set it up in a secure location so there isn’t movement in any of the legs. Some tripods come with remote shutter controls, which can really help if you’re trying to get a shot of the entire family or yourself and don’t have anyone around to help.
Tripods work great for steady shots, but many phone videos require moving the phone throughout the scene. The solution for this is motion stabilizing gimbals. These handy little devices attach to the phone and keep it steady as you move it about. They can be pricey, but to get the best footage from your phone, these work amazingly well. Here’s one that isn’t too much that works well.
Another trick you can try is to use an app like Hyperlapse that can record a timelapse. If you play back the footage at 1x, it will remove some of the motion and can give you a better result.
In the ideal world, you can control all the lighting and settings on your phone to be perfect for each shot and buy all the fancy gadgets to make your videos less shaky, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Even if we did, there would still be room to improve every video shot from your phone. That’s where post-production comes in. Post-production is all the work done to clean up and edit a video after it’s shot. Effective post-prod requires quality footage as an input, but even with great footage much can be done with color grading, light enhancements, removing shakiness, enhancing contrast, or sharpening or blurring different parts of each scene. Post-production is also the time when video titles, transitions, and special effects are added. There are many apps or software programs that can be used to do a pretty good job of each of these, but to get the best results, professional-grade software programs like Adobe Premiere Pro or Apple Final Cut Pro are best. These programs have a steep learning curve and the best results are achieved by professional video editors who edit full-time, but for quick results you can use any of several free and easier to navigate software programs or apps for video editing.
If you want the highest quality video editing without making the large time investment in learning software and editing each clip, you can use our Video Butlers services. Learn more here or sign up here.